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Looking at Children’s Lit in a New Way

Class plumbs classics for adult themes like economic inequality, power

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A Little Princess

Inequality isn’t just Bernie Sanders’ obsession—children’s literature embraces the topic, too, as this illustration from the first (1905) edition of A Little Princess shows. llustration by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

The course title is straightforward enough—Children’s Literature: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Imaginary Spaces. Then instructor Anna Henchman chalks up the blackboard with discussion topics like ECONOMIC INEQUALITY and POWER + FORMS OF POWER.

Toto, we’re not in the Kansas of traditional story time anymore.

That opinion is confirmed as the class begins hashing out the day’s assignment, A Little Princess, the 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a rich boarding school student who is reduced to penury and a job as a servant. Henchman, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of English, zeroes in on scenes where Sara, the heroine, is repulsed by rats in her dingy attic room, only to shed her fear through imagination and empathy. She pretends that she and the rodents are prisoners in the Bastille during the French Revolution—and realizes that she’s looked down on the rats in the same way that adults look down on her in her poverty, one student notes.

Insights effervesce from all corners of the 34-student class regarding Sara’s reaction to her changed economic circumstances: “Things happen to people by accident.” “It’s not really an accident she finally recovers her wealth. It’s what goes around comes around.” “Money isn’t innately good or bad.…People are good and bad, and money can bring that out.”

Henchman enthusiastically conducts the dialogue, noting that when the novel was first published, and during the revolution Sara conjures in her imagination, inequality was as much a live wire as it is today. “This is not a revolutionary text,” she concludes, “but it is raising these questions and this feeling of discomfort.”

You might be thinking, What happened to simple “lived happily ever after”? Truth be told, that notion about kiddie lit is as imaginary as Sara’s Bastille: much children’s writing has plumbed adult themes of power and inequality, Henchman says. Her new course, which probes those themes, was developed in part through an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project last summer (UROP provides funding for faculty-mentored research by undergrad students). Having decided to create the class, Henchman enlisted UROP student Nina Becker Jobim (CAS’16) to research authors and assemble readings for the syllabus.

The School of Education runs a certificate program in children’s and young adult literature as continuing education for teachers. The CAS Writing Program also offers a children’s literature course this spring, but it discusses nonfiction (which Henchman avoids) and more contemporary works than those tackled in Henchman’s class.

Anna Henchman

Anna Henchman’s course grew out of the power children’s literature held for her as a child. Photo by Dana J. Quigley

“I’m looking at fairy tales, and then the golden age of children’s literature, which is 1860 to 1920,” and finally at some more recent authors, including J. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, 1937) and C. S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950), she says. Her goal is “to reimmerse students in the stories that are familiar from childhood, and then encourage them to analyze the choices and the assumptions that are built into those stories.”

Cinderella, for example, assumes a world with a black-and-white option for its characters, Henchman says: “either abject penury and hard work or being the princess and having this glorious palace.” That either-or world is also the one depicted in A Little Princess.

The princess-or-peasant economy certainly existed in the feudal societies that are the settings for many fairy tales. But the golden-age Anglo-American literature that is the focus of Henchman’s course was produced by capitalist societies, marked by “rapid movements of wealth to poverty or poverty to wealth,” she says, so that rags-to-riches tales are an enduring kiddie-lit meme.

That these stories were meant as more than childish entertainment is a revelation to students. “I found it interesting that most of the children’s stories from years and years ago…were meant to give kids a sense of awareness, to warn them to behave, or else something bad could happen to them,” says Carly Kinscherf (COM’18). “They’re basically morals for kids.…I didn’t really think about the meanings behind them when I was younger.”

“I’d echo that statement,” says Dylan Berkey (COM’18). “It’s pretty funny to go back and read them and see what kind of themes pop up again and again.”

For Henchman, the professional is personal, and not just because she’s the mother of a six-year-old. She developed the class in part because as a child, she believed in Aslan, the titular feline in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who represents Jesus Christ. “I was brought up by atheists, who told me they didn’t believe in God, and so I started to find my structures of meaning and my belief systems and my sense of right and wrong in children’s books. I literally believed that I would be kind of saved or at least watched over by Aslan.…I feel like my incredible attachment to the books that I read as a kid is exactly why I’m a professor now.”

4 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Looking at Children’s Lit in a New Way

  • Anita Garlick on 02.23.2016 at 10:44 am

    Aw Shucks, I read this too late to be able to go…
    i am very interested in the topic.

  • Ed Earle on 02.23.2016 at 11:21 am

    I am scared that my 7 year old daughter will someday be taught by professors that have too much time on their hands. To derive social and economic issues out of childrens fairy tales. Would you rather have them read more progressive themed children’s story’s so that professors can mold thier little minds into a liberal view of life that you may hold. Shame on you! I read those books that you mentioned and never thought that there authors had a motive. And any morals that were implied in these are positive. Should children try to be good and behave.

    • Dr. Kathrine Booth on 02.24.2016 at 11:08 am

      Studies of literature are always subversive to those who desire fantasy and escapism. Even the literature of the old canon (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton) asked readers to challenge the rules of their world and advocate for justice. But, pure enjoyment and the achievement of a moral value are simply one lens through which to read what is deemed “children’s literature”. Yet, children’s literature never truly was intended just for children and their limited sensibilities; the Grimm brothers did not market their wares to children. Charles Perrault, writing what would become the foundation of the fairy tale in the 17th century, wrote the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella to be didactic: to teach his daughters good moral values about behavior. Yet, moral codes are a product of the social ethos of the day and, consequently, reflect the value system and politics of the society they are born in. Because many in positions of power sought to diminish the free-thinking of citizens, writers like Perrault in France, and later the Grimm Brothers in Germany and Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark, wrote their messages under the seemingly benign genre of the fairy story, thus diminishing the powers that were’s ability to condemn their works. Hence, the works and their ideas were spread and read.
      If my daughters were fortunate enough to be taught by professors unafraid to engage with the allegorical fairy stories of today–like the adventures of Harry Potter–I would be overjoyed: how else could they engage with their world effectively and with sophistication in order to successfully do something like vote, hold down a job, advocate for themselves, demand fairness and justice to essentially survive and improve the world?

      • Jim in New Orleans on 04.18.2016 at 10:43 pm

        As a doctor, I would hope you would try to avoid absolutes such as “always”. Your assertion in the first sentence is OFTEN true, but sweeping generalizations should typically be avoided. I’m sure you know this.

        Children’s literature has so much to teach all of us. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” has as much relevance for BU grads as it does for 3-year-olds. I do agree with you that children’s literature is much more than brain candy as Ed Earle suggests. It is rich in lessons of this wonderful, adventurous gift we all life.

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